Ashdown ran away from telling the harsh truth

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The Liberal Democrats love their leader. There is nothing synthetic about the rapture with which Paddy Ashdown's party received his speech yesterday. The hall was packed. The minute-by-minute applause spontaneous. The party basking in the leader's own flattery of it. Even as he magnanimously distributed compliments to those who ran the election campaign, the faithful sat secure in the unshakeable belief that he is overwhelmingly the party's greatest electoral asset. A few of his younger lieutenants have this week have jockeyed, with absurd optimism, for the benefit of the gallery. But it's in the empty hope of filling a vacancy which for now doesn't remotely exist.

Paddy is entitled to this adulation. But it also sets a yardstick by which to judge what he says to his party. Supremely popular among his own tribe as he is, Ashdown can afford to take liberties which might not be available to another leader. A William Hague, his position precarious almost before his leadership is completely under way, apparently dares not speak truths about the reasons for his party's defeat. Ashdown, riding on an electoral success, unchallenged for nine years at the head of an expanding party, can get away with a great deal more.

So this is one yardstick by which to assess the well rehearsed message that Ashdown was telling home truths to his party yesterday. The other is the disjunction exposed in Eastbourne this week between where Ashdown wants to take the Liberal Democrats and where they want to be. Don Foster, the education spokesman, does not make the ludicrous claim that the Blair betrayed the Labour government by not bringing primary school class sizes down to 30, four months after taking office, because he believes it. He does it because he thinks it is what the party wants to hear. Charles Kennedy is an intelligent enough politician to know the rank absurdity of suggesting that the Lib Dems should set about the task of replacing the Conservatives as the main opposition to Labour. It's a claim which defies history, wishing away the enduring right in British politics. It founders on the truth that of for every 10 seats where the Liberal Democrats are second, seven are Tory and three are Labour. Kennedy doesn't think those seats are remotely winnable by making the Government the Liberal Democrats' principal opponents. Nor does he think for a second, as he appeared to imply this week, that coalition with Labour is not the utterly inevitable consequence of electoral reform. He just thinks they are arguments that will appeal to the large proportion of activists who are much more interested in winning seats from Labour on local councils than in increasing their power at Westminster. Assuming therefore that the Kennedys and Fosters are judging their party correctly, Ashdown, seeking to condition his party towards what it needs to do it if it to realise the holy grail of electoral reform has both a big problem and the power to do a lot about it.

It's hard to give him more than two cheers. He spoke, albeit a little opaquely, of the "risks" he was prepared to take to maximise the party's influence. He warned, rightly, that the party will have to compromise some of its most cherished constitutional goals if it is to make progress in the famous joint Cabinet committee. He was careful, despite some unrepentant and generalised New Labour-bashing, to affirm his belief that Blair is "serious about changing the culture of our politics." In a gentle but unmistakeable rebuff to Kennedy, he derided the notion that the Liberal Democrats should be content to be a "conventional opposition". He warned against "an excessive concern for our purity." He eschewed the "politics of the tribe".

So far so good. It was, in the end, an appeal for the Liberal Democrats to grow up. But was it enough? Did the audience understand it in their hearts as well as their heads? Within two hours of Ashdown's speech the conference did two apparently trivial things which rather graphically suggest otherwise. First, in a move inspired by little more than the self- interest of the ubiquitous Liberal Democrat councillors, the conference reaffirmed its opposition to the idea of a directly elected London mayor.With one vote, scarcely noted in the warm afterglow of Ashdown rhetoric, the party, described in that rhetoric as the true reformers, leading on a laggardly Labour Party, set itself against one of the most exciting constitutional innovations of the new government. And even if the party's policy were right, is it sensible? Are the Liberal Democrats really going to campaign for a No vote in the referendum on an elected mayor - and in the process look even more antideluvian than the Conservative Party? Blair overcame similarly entrenched municipal opposition to make the mayor policy. Ashdown, in his speech yesterday, didn't even try. Immediately afterwards the party reaffirmed its commitment to the single transferable vote. There is not the merest ghost of a chance that STV will become the agreed system of PR. At the moment the party will be lucky if it achieves the "alternative vote" before the next election - very lucky considering that on the 1997 vote shares it would have doubled their seats in Westminster.

It's easy to say that doesn't matter, that in the big grown-up village of Westminster everybody who knows anything knows that Ashdown appreciates that all these policies, from an impressively huge list of spending commitments to an absolutely unattainable form of PR don't mean anything. But Blair, whom Ashdown genuinely admires, rather more than he let on to his conference yesterday, has shown there is another way. That it's not just the leader who matters; the party has to change too. It's unwise for Labour politicians to patronise the Liberal Democrats, the best of whom would grace a Blair Cabinet, as the Prime Minister knows. But it just as unwise for the Liberal Democrats to patronise Labour. When Ashdown rightly congratulates his party for their successes, and then harangues Labour for its tax and spending policies, he would do well to remind it that quite a lot of those successes were because Labour supporters switched to Liberal Democrat candidates to help to return a Labour government committed to precisely those policies. Ashdown's speech was a step in the right direction. But telling unpalatable truths, as Blair has shown, is part of the new politics. Ashdown will have to do more than he did yesterday.